Secret to Winning a Nobel Prize? Eat More Chocolate

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As the Nobel Prizes are being awarded this week, one U.S. scientist asks: could eating chocolate have anything to do with becoming a laureate?

Why would the sweet treat be linked to winning the most prestigious intellectual award, you ask? In a “note” published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Franz H. Messerli, a cardiologist at St. Luke’s–Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, writes that cocoa contains flavanols, plant-based compounds that previous studies have linked to the slowing or reversing of age-related cognitive decline. (You can also get flavonols in green tea, red wine and some fruits.)

Given that, Messerli wondered “whether there would be a correlation between a country’s level of chocolate consumption and its population’s cognitive function.” But since “no data on overall national cognitive function are publicly available,” Messerli decided to use the number of Nobel laureates per capita as a stand-in.

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Messerli went to Wikipedia and downloaded a list of countries ranked by Nobel laureates per capita (only prizes awarded through 2011 were included), and then compared that data with each country’s annual chocolate consumption per capita, obtained from several chocolate trade associations. What he found was a “surprisingly powerful correlation” between the two.

The country with the most Nobel laureates per 10 million people and the greatest chocolate consumption per capita: Switzerland. Sweden came in a close second, and Denmark landed in third place. (See a graph of all 23 countries included here.)

The U.S. fell somewhere in the middle of the pack, along with the Netherlands, Ireland, France, Belgium and Germany, according to Messerli’s analysis. At the bottom of the list were China, Japan and Brazil.

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And Sweden was an outlier. Messerli notes that given the country’s per capita chocolate consumption of 6.4 kg (14 lbs.) per year, one would expect it to produce a total of about 14 Nobel laureates — and yet Sweden has 32. Messerli writes:

Considering that in this instance the observed number exceeds the expected number by a factor of more than 2, one cannot quite escape the notion that either the Nobel Committee in Stockholm has some inherent patriotic bias when assessing the candidates for these awards or, perhaps, that the Swedes are particularly sensitive to chocolate, and even minuscule amounts greatly enhance their cognition.

The good doctor even calculated the dose of chocolate necessary to increase the number of Nobel laureates in a given country by one: 0.4 kg (0.9 lbs.) of chocolate per capita per year. For the U.S., that would amount to 125 million kg (275.6 million lbs.) of chocolate a year.

“Obviously, these findings are hypothesis-generating only and will have to be tested in a prospective, randomized trial,” Messerli writes with a wink, noting that the data doesn’t prove that eating chocolate actually causes superior intellectual function. It could be, for instance, that smarter people simply eat more chocolate.

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Either way, at least one Nobel laureate, Eric Cornell, an American physicist who shared the Nobel Prize in 2001, is on board with the new findings. He joked to Reuters Health that eating dark chocolate was indeed the secret to his success: “Personally I feel that milk chocolate makes you stupid. Now dark chocolate is the way to go. It’s one thing if you want like a medicine or chemistry Nobel Prize, O.K., but if you want a physics Nobel Prize it pretty much has got to be dark chocolate.”